Buddhism, with its alternating currents of tranquillity and rigor, works all too nicely as a vicarious movie experience. Watching Travellers & Magicians, the first feature to be shot in Bhutan (the Himalayan kingdom that was the inspiration for Lost Horizon), we can glory, for an hour or two, in the splendors of a life based on renunciation — and then return, without having to renounce anything ourselves, to a life of unrigorous indulgence.
The (mild) intrigue of Travellers & Magicians is that its central figure, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), rolls his eyes at Buddhist karma. He’s a government official who has been assigned to oversee a village of monks and can barely stand it. Instead, he smokes and plays air guitar, coifs himself in a ’70s style reminiscent of the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings, and yearns to live in America, ”the land of my dreams.” Mostly, Dondup dreams about pretty girls. The movie, which tells the somewhat dawdling tale of his road trip to enlightenment, tweaks his Western-spirited selfishness even as it invites him, via a flirtation with a villager’s 19-year-old daughter, to have his rice cake and eat it, too.